How getting lost in Saigon helped us to fall in love with Vietnamese people

IN SEARCH OF OUR COUCH SURFING HOST

Before leaving for HCMC we found a Couch Surfer who was happy to host us for a couple of days. We were quite thrilled with the prospect of staying with Thao. She was an English teacher and she expected her guests to participate in her classes to improve her students’ speaking and listening skills. Thao had a class on the day of our arrival and she asked if we could make it. We’d have most certainly arrived on time if not for the fact it was so damn hard to find her place.

Although the buses of the company we used for our travel from Can Tho usually included free pick up and drop off, it wasn’t the case in such a colossal city as Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). It didn’t bother us much, though, as HCMC had a good network of public buses and the bus stops were marked on Google maps. We hopped on a bus and then changed painlessly to another one, arriving at the recommended bus stop in around 30-40 minutes.

We entered the street with the name matching the Thao’s address but struggled to find the right house number. Walking up and down the same street in the growing darkness we drew attention of an elderly man standing at his doorway. To our surprise, he spoke very basic English and somehow, he knew that we were looking for an English teacher. Apparently we were not the first surfers to get lost! The well intentioned grandpa pointed vaguely in the direction we came from but after double-checking we concluded there was nothing there.

Then, a young man riding a motorbike stopped in front of us and asked in English what were we looking for. He offered to go by bike to search for the address. Soon enough, he found the house with the correct number but judging by the reaction of the lodgers it certainly wasn’t the place we were looking for. We called Thao and passed the phone to the friendly stranger. As it turned out, we were on the wrong street. All we had to do was to cross the street and get to a very large, tall block of flats. It was located right at the banks of a small canal.

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The view from Thao’s apartment block

We thanked the boy profusely. We were very grateful and overwhelmed with how selflessly helpful the Vietnamese people were. After a bit more searching, we saw a young girl waiting for us at the elevator. She was Thao’s student who was missing out on the class just to take us to our host’s apartment (which doubled as a classroom).

AT THE ENGLISH CLASS

Sweaty and tired as we were, we did not waste time to refresh. We simply dropped our bags and sat at the specially arranged chairs, facing the students who gazed at us intently. The participation in the class was a pleasure. The students asked us some questions about who we were, where we were travelling and so on and we in turn could get to know more about them.

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Thao’s English class. Special guest chairs ready for us.

EATING OUT WITH THE LOCALS

After the class, the whole group left together to eat out. We were a bit apprehensive about the expenses yet had no choice but to join. After all, we were the star attractions of that night. Everybody jumped on their scooters, with only Thao, me and Sayak hitching a ride. We joined the crazy traffic and had an exhilarating ride to the nearby vegetarian restaurant, chosen by the group just because of me. It was closed, though so we had another longish ride through the neighbourhood to a different location. The second restaurant looked quite trendy which didn’t fare well for us.

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Dip with… ants

The great benefit of going out with the locals was that they knew much better than us what to order! Sayak had some tasty seafood and very exotic ant dip (yes, dip with crunchy ants inside!) and I tried a few lovely mushroom and tofu dishes. It worked like tapas: lots of small dishes which everybody shared.

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Vietnam is a tofu country so vegans won’t go hungry here

Most of the students, (apart from two more settled, middle-age men), were in their early twenties, yet -unlike us- they did not seem to mind spending money. Eating out was an essential part of the Vietnamese culture.

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Sayak deep into a discussion with Thao’s students

SUPREME COUCH SURFING EXPERIENCE

Thao shared the flat with three other girls. It was a simple but spacious apartment at one of the top floors, offering expansive views at the city. The space used as a classroom was cleared out for the night to become our bedroom. We slept on a comfy mattress spread on the floor.

Thao’s apartment had an amazing location. We stayed at the local neighbourhood with plenty of cheap dining places (including a com chay – vegan eatery), cafes, a bakery and even a laundrette. Yet, it was within a walking distance from the centre. We had a feeling we’d stay there for a while.

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